I Can Do It All By Myself

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By DeeDee Corbitt Sauter

Some stories bear repeating. A child ready to do it “all by myself ” is as timeless as childhood itself. And so this spring we bring back a favorite Tambourines and Elephants, first printed in the Dec. 2012 issue of Prince William Living.

I have been told that a professional photographer must take an enormous number of pictures in order to get a few great shots. It’s all in the math and percentages. Skill, time and statistics are the essential ingredients necessary for success of all kinds. In fact, most successful ventures are constructed on these three foundational building blocks.
I have a fabulous friend, Jeanette, who utters the words, “I have a theory on that…” at least once a day. This phrase is always a precursor to help explain the “why” of a situation. The human mind inherently likes explanations and there are perpetual searches to find the reason for our behavior.

The “Why?” query can be approached a myriad of ways. For example, “What in the world possessed you to do that?” is a phrase specifically constructed in an attempt to comprehend preteen actions. The response is predictably and consistently, “I don’t know,” but that does not ever stop us from trying to solve these mysteries. Entire college courses, professions and fields of study are dedicated to finding the answer to “Why?”

My friend’s numerous theories are simply her way of helping humanity find logic behind the seemingly irrational. Like the photographer, her hypotheses may be good, but only once in awhile does she develop a great one. One day, while sitting in the hub of all activity—my kitchen—Jeanette witnessed my half-naked youngest son proclaim, in a
volume that the entire world could hear, that he could pick out his own clothes and put them on all by himself.

Simply looking in his direction elicited shrieks of protest and reaffirmations that he needed no assistance. I gave him none because I did not care and simultaneously, my 11-year-old was busy slinking around the house moaning about his unfair workload and how impossible it would be for him to complete his chores and clean the bathroom without my support.

My oldest has had a list of responsibilities since he was three. He had to pick out his clothes, floss his teeth, try to make his bed, clean up toys, put dirty clothes in the hamper and get dressed. Not huge, but it was a beginning. I even had the list typed and laminated. Early on, he would gleefully, joyously and independently complete each task and use a dry erase marker to check it off the list. He even insisted on making his own bed without any help, because he got an enormous amount of pleasure out of doing everything “all by himself.”

He would then announce repeatedly how well he had done.

Where did that motivated child go? When did he morph into that morose, whining invalid who was no longer able to discern clean clothes from dirty, let alone identify the location of the laundry room? And…why?

Here is where Jeanette’s theory helped me understand the dilemma at hand. Alas, he used it all up. It was simple. When he was three, four, five, six and even nine, he reveled in being permitted to do things without prompting and was rejuvenated by simple positive reinforcement and verbal accolades. What we as parents did not know (until this theory shed light on our problem) is that the ability to work independently and the number of tasks that can be completed with enthusiasm is finite.

This is important. When a child completes all of his predestined independent tasks, there is no way to refill the coffer. That’s right; he is done. In our case, my son peaked in first grade and after that, we, as parents, needed to be aware that slovenly behavior, poor posture and complaints are inevitable.

This explains why we have to point to dirty socks on the floor that need laundering, repeat the “complete your homework” mantra constantly and wonder if the children have hearing problems. They do not. They are simply unable to do anything without supervision.

They will tell you to leave them alone, that they don’t need prompts and—my personal favorite—they will utter the phrase, “I know” to your reminders. But they do not know. They cannot identify things that need to be done because they used up all their independent actions years earlier.

Now that we understand why this happens, we can take the steps necessary to fix the problem. Current scientific queries are evaluating the viability of renewable or self- sustaining energy forms. We can then easily apply that technology to the rejuvenation of autonomous thought and possibly self motivation.

Of course, this itself presents a challenge. Is there anyone out there who has not already used up his quota of independent actions to actually start, let alone finish, the job?

DeeDee Corbitt Sauter is a resident of Northern Virginia. Her column, “Tambourines and Elephants,” appears monthly in Prince William Living.

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